Doctors 'consider' pensions action

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The Independent Online

Doctors have refused to rule out industrial action following concerns over a proposed shake-up of the NHS pensions system.

The British Medical Association (BMA) voiced its unhappiness about changes to the health service's retirement scheme - on the day hundreds of thousands of other public sector workers went on strike over planned reforms to their schemes by the Government.

BMA members voted in favour of "considering" industrial action, with officials saying the revised NHS pension scheme would see staff paying more and working longer but receiving less.

The Department of Health insisted it would set out changes that were affordable, as well as being fair to NHS staff and the taxpayer.

But Andrew Dearden, chairman of the BMA's pensions committee, said many were concerned because the Government had refused to enter into talks with the union.

He warned that it could lead to a mass exodus of doctors from the Government's NHS pension system - taking billions out of the Treasury's purse - or opening up the possibility of industrial action.

He said: "The Government has made the assumption because we live 10 years longer, we can work 10 years longer.

"Would you be happy for a 68-year-old neurosurgeon to be digging around inside your head?

"Ten years longer in life does not mean 10 years longer of a working life - especially one that requires very high skill.

"In 2008, we agreed to work longer and pay more. Our message is simple - we want a reasonable dialogue on pensions.

"While feelings are running high, industrial action would only be a last resort. Doctors always think of their patients first.

"It would never be a decision that would be taken lightly."

A motion for the BMA to consider balloting members on industrial action was approved by 87% of members on the final day of its annual conference in Cardiff.

Mr Dearden and BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum stressed it was too early to entertain the possibility of going on strike - adding it was "premature" to talk about "specific" types of action.

Following his address to the conference in St David's Hall, Mr Dearden added during a press conference that it took a lot for doctors to "even consider industrial action" - stating that the last time medics went on strike was 1975.

However, he admitted that doctors had the same rights as people belonging to other trade unions - whose options of industrial action include the cessation of work, refusing to work overtime or "working without enthusiasm".

He said increased pension contributions were particularly a problem for those starting out in medicine - some of whom would be "paying off student debts of up to £70,000".

This morning, a number of speakers - both old and young - at the BMA's conference spoke in favour of pursuing industrial action if the Government failed to change its position.

Retired doctor Russell Walshaw said: "We know that (pension) contributions made by doctors exceed the pension payout and the (Treasury) fund has a surplus to the tune of £10 billion over the next five years.

"Can we afford an exodus of senior doctors that will occur if any draconian changes are made to the scheme?"

Junior doctor Adam Moreton, 23, who has completed his first year of service in the NHS, said: "As prospective GP I could be better off with a commercially available pension. Medical students, juniors, the GPs and consultants of the future are being given a raw deal."

But some doctors said they felt uneasy about the possibility of industrial action.

Dr David Bailey called on delegates to reject the motion, saying doctors "needed to maintain the trust of their patients".

The Department for Health said it accepted Lord Hutton's recommendations on reforming public sector pay and conditions as a "basis for consultation".

A spokeswoman said: "Strike action is unnecessary and premature while discussions, set up at the request of the TUC, are ongoing.

"Trade unions that operate within the NHS, including the BMA, have been invited to get round the table to look at how best to implement the employee contribution increases announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review."

The Department added that it was important for the NHS to provide a remuneration package able to attract and retain staff.

It said the NHS pension scheme was "currently in balance" with staff contributing more in payments than was paid out in pensions - with any surplus returned to the Treasury.

Government officials expect this to change in the future as a generation of members reaches retirement and they draw their pensions - putting the NHS in a similar position to other public service schemes.

The spokeswoman said: "This is why the NHS scheme has not been excluded from the reforms."